Wednesday, March 22, 2006


Giants Pitching Preview 2006: Da Bully (or, a Ridiculously Overlong Look at the Giants' Bullpen)

Despite the addition of “proven closer” Armando Benitez, the Giants’ 2005 bullpen picked up right where it left off in 2004, blowing late-inning leads and emitting a stench so foul that Oscar the Grouch would have been forced to plug his nose. The only difference this time was that the Giants’ starters were also hideous, so the relievers’ general crappiness was less evident.

The usual suspects were behind the mess. Matt Herges, so bad as the closer in ’04, proved that he could be just as horrendous in a meaningless mop up role. Jason Christiansen reprised his role as the lefty specialist with the unfortunate inability to get lefties out. He also got into a midseason wrestling match with Barry Bonds which may or may not have re-aggravated Bonds’s knee. Even Jim Brower, the team’s most effective reliever in 2004, suffered from a dead arm and was beat to a pulp. Benitez tore his hamstring covering first base in an April game and wouldn’t come back until August, and his replacement was the exceedingly vanilla Tyler Walker. Only Scott Eyre was anything resembling effective. It got so bad that “Divine” Al Levine was brought in as a potential solution, only to unsurprisingly add kerosene to the raging inferno.

Then around June the Giants did something unheard of. They began scrapping the charred corpses of Brower, Herges, et al and began to give young, cheap guys like Scott Munter and Jeremy Accardo a chance. Amazingly, shockingly, the young guys not only didn’t embarrass themselves, they actually outperformed their veteran predecessors by a wide margin. When the starters began to put things together in August, the Giants had themselves the makings of a pretty darn good staff.

The fact that the young guys pitched so well just highlighted the insanity of keeping old garbage like Christiansen and Herges around. Relief pitchers are the single most replaceable commodity in baseball. If you scrounge long enough though AAA or the indy leagues you’re going to find somebody who can pitch effectively in the majors for 50-70 innings. Knowing where to look negates the need to toss 4 million dollars a year at someone like LaTroy Hawkins. With young, unproven guys you can take a chance, because even if they suck, they’re not getting paid much and you can go on to the next project. If you find a diamond in the rough, well, you’ve got yourself a good cheap pitcher. Smart dumpster diving is how the Giants came up with John Johnstone, Felix Rodriguez, and Scott Eyre. It’s worth the limited risk if the upside is relatively high. Meanwhile, you know Matt Herges is going to blow, so why the hell keep trotting him out there?

The Giants do have some key changes this year. Most importantly, they lost Scott Eyre, who was nothing short of fabulous last season. Eyre bolted for the Cubs, and while his presence will be missed, it’s pretty much lunacy to give a 34-year-old middle reliever coming off his best season $11 million over three years, as the Cubs did. The Giants added Tim Worrell via free agency and Steve Kline through a trade too stupid for words. They also have Benitez back and healthy and ready to maybe kinda start living up to his bloated contract.

And they have the young guys. With Accardo, Munter, and Jack Taschner all looking like quality pitchers, the Giants seem to be perilously close to having a good bullpen. Even though Worrell and Kline are old and overpaid, they’re still solid. This looks to be the best bullpen the Giants have fielded since 2002, and after watching the bullpen’s disintegration in early ’05, I don’t think any Giants fan could have expected that.

Armando Benitez I’m willing to give ‘Mando a mulligan for that whole torn hamstring thing, but even before the injury he didn’t look very good. His velocity was down and the bite on his splitter was pretty lacking. I was willing to swallow his 3 year/$21 million dollar contract after sitting through a year of Matt Herges and Dustin Hermansen closing, but if Benitez can’t improve substantially upon last year’s numbers this signing is going to look terrible. The guy who threw up a 1.29 ERA in 2004 isn’t coming back, but that’s what we’re paying for. Kudos, though, for his amazingly fast comeback from that injury.

Allow me, if you will, to go on another “proven closers” rant. Paying a guy like Benitez tons of money to anchor the bullpen is insanity, and it goes back to the whole thing about how easily replaceable relievers are, and how overrated closers are. If you can find a guy who throws hard and who has at least some semblance of where the ball is going, you can stick him in as closer and he’ll more than likely do just fine. Having funny facial hair and goofy glasses helps, but mostly you just need a guy with a live arm.

Look at Derrick Turnbow and Bobby Jenks, two of the best closers in the league last year but who in 2004 were being ignored in the minor leagues. And check out Ryan Dempster, an awful starter but a guy who magically transformed into a star closer on a whim. Finding decent closers is that easy, and you don’t need to empty the wallet for a Benitez when you can just find a talented castoff and give him a chance. Billy Beane understands this; it’s how he came up with Billy Taylor, Jason Isringhausen, Keith Foulke, and Huston Street. Why can’t other teams figure this out? Sure, a guy like Eric Gagne, who strikes out a bajillion batters with an ERA lower than George Bush’s IQ (rim shot) is probably worth a ton of money. But a guy like Benitez? No way in hell. End Rant.

Tim Worrell Ah, the old man comes back after being overpaid by the Phillies. I’d have fonder memories of Worrell if he hadn’t been the one the mound hacking up Game 6, or if he hadn’t lain that fat fastball in to Pudge Rodriguez on an 0-2 count in 2003. Worrell was awful with the Phils last season, but his troubles were chalked up to “personal problems”. He was pretty good with the Dbacks after being banished to the desert, and it’s hard to put up a 2.27 ERA in that hitting environment, so color me impressed. It’s hard to know how much Worrell has left, but there are worse alternatives out there, and I can see Worrell being an asset.

Steve Kline I already expressed my displeasure with the Kline/Hawkins deal here, so I’ll spare you another tirade. I will point out that lefties hit .317 against Kline last season, which begs the question, if you’re a LOOGY who can’t get left-handed hitters out, what the hell are you doing in the majors? His career record against lefties is very good though, so we’ll chalk last year up as a fluke. It’s still hard to believe that we traded a solid reliever like Hawkins to get him though. In essence, we traded Jerome Williams and David Aardsma for Kline. Where’s a good oven when you need one? I think I need to stick my head in it. Unless Kline starts getting righties out and pulls a Scott Eyre 2005 out of his ass, he’ll be only marginally valuable.

Apparently Kline is a bit of a jerk, too, as he’s butted heads with former managers, most notably Tony Larussa, giving him a rep as a lout. This never ceases to amuse me. It’s one thing if you’re talking about a guy like Milton Bradley, a goofball who teams have to force themselves to deal with because he’s so amazingly talented. It’s another if the cancer is a guy like Steve freaking Kline, who’s a duck’s fart away from being a worthless piece of crap. When a guy like this causes a stir (sort of like Derek Bell’s legendary “Operation Shutdown”), all that is really required is a brief little “WTF?” and a one-way ticket to Fresno.

Tyler Walker Reason #6,782 why saves (and closers in general) are overrated. Walker was the Giants’ closer for three and a half months, and he racked up 23 saves, a pretty impressive total in that span. Of course, no one is confusing Walker with Dennis Eckersley, or hell, even Jose Mesa, and that’s the point. Given the lead and the chance to get three normally easy outs at the end of games, pretty much anybody with a decent set of pitches can succeed. Walker is barely above average as a pitcher, but he did a reasonable enough job in the closer role in 2005. He’s not a guy I want out there closing games regularly by any means, but if the choice is between paying Benitez $21 million or throwing Walker into the fray again for practically nothing, the decision isn’t so easy. If I’m Brain Sabean I’m dangling those 23 saves out like a lollipop in front of some retarded GM, hoping to get some return value on the basis of Walker being a “proven closer.”

As for Walker’s role this year, he’ll fill in as a 7th inning type. He throws pretty hard and I can see him throwing together a John Johnstone year or two, but his upside is limited. If Jeremy Accardo develops, Walker will take a more appetizing role as a mop-up guy in blowouts, like the post he held in 2004.

Scott Munter Bill Murray had a hell of a time getting rid of that pesky gopher in Caddyshack, but he should have just hired Munter. Owner of a heavy, dipping sinker, Munter was responsible for the deaths of myriad crickets, ants, and many other slimy creatures that dwell on the ground. His ability to get those groundballs gives him a place in the Giants’ future, but his gawdawful 11:12 K/BB ratio in 39 innings has to improve if he’s going to have a role larger than as a ROOGY-type. I can see how he’d be good as a guy who comes in to face slow-footed righty hitters with men on base, hoping to get that crucial double play ball. Sort of like a Julian Tavarez, without the horrific acne scars and penchant for bizarre ranting.

Jeremy Accardo For all the nasty stuff he throws, that strikeout rate (16 in 29 2/3 innings) is fairly poor. Not sure what to make of it, unless it's just rookie nerves. Unfortunately for Accardo, his most memorable moment last season was surrendering a game-winning home run to Jeff Kent, but that was only one of two jacks he gave up all year. He has the repertoire and the funky delivery to be a very good relief pitcher, and I wouldn't be surprised if he takes Tim Worrell's job by June. Accardo wasn't even drafted but he made his way through the Giants' farm system and into their major league bullpen plans. See, this is how you find good bullpen arms. You don't go shoving truckloads of money at some Felix Rodriguez-type. Have I made my opinion on this clear yet? No? Ok, then, more frothing ahead.

Jeff Fassero Well, there it was. I wrote last year that if the Giants were lucky, Fassero could throw up 60-70 innings of 4-ERA ball and all would be good. I was expecting something more like a complete explosion like the guy in Scanners. Thankfully, the planets aligned just the right way and Fassero ate up 91 innings with a 4.05 ERA. Asking for a repeat this year is wishful thinking along the lines of one day getting a date with Kate Beckinsale, but I don't see why Fassero can't be reasonably good again. He can come in and weather the storm if the starter is rocked early, and he can serve as an emergency LOOGY. He's certainly one of Brian Sabean's geezer pickups that paid off.

Jack Taschner With Kline and Fassero already holding roles in the bullpen, Taschner might be the odd man out, which is too bad, because he's probably better than both of them. Taschner is a case study in why teams should never, ever pay a million bucks for a LOOGY. Coming in to face one hitter per game is the single most undemanding job in major league baseball. There are cheap left-handed hitters all over the place, from Timbucktu to Portland, Maine (or Portland, Oregon, for that matter). Finding a reasonably talented lefty pitcher to get his hitting counterparts out doesn't take a genius. Sure, there are Alvin Mormans and whatnot out there, but there's also quality no names like Jack Taschner, ready to outperform the Steve Klines of the world while making pennies on the dollar.

I like Taschner quite a bit. He throws hard, is tough on lefties, and he might even one day be able to transcend the LOOGY moniker.

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